NOTE: This article is taken from the Canadian Federation of Podiatric Medicine (CFPM). The author is a Podologist and Shoe Historian from Curtin University of Technology, Perth, Western Australia.
Research into the religious significance of the washing and kissing of bare feet was inspired by the recent “foot worship” scandal of George Passias who “washed” and kissed Ethel Bouzalas’ feet with his own mouth. The former priest was defrocked last year for his sexcapades which came to light in video format.
What may surprise you dear reader is Christians protected their feet by the patronage of the holy.
Two Saints championed the legs and feet, St Peter (The Apostle). The Feast of Peter and Paul is June 29th; and Servatus (Servaas, Servatius or Servais), his Memorial Day is 13 may. Servatus is frequently depicted as a bishop with three wooden shoes.
In Biblical times shoes were made from animal skins, and these were difficult to clean. This may explain why shoes in the Old Testament, an agricultural society came to represent all that was unclean. The emblems of filth were left outside homes and considered quite unsuitable for holy places. Feet encased in footwear required to be purified and this responsibility usually fell to the lowest house servant. Foot bathing signified the status of an honored guest and put them at ease and comfort. It also kept the floors, clean. Foot washing was viewed as an honor or service and became a common Jewish custom at formal banquets and took place either on arrival or before the feast.
Foot washing, when undertaken by anyone other than the lowest servant in the household, took on significant symbolic importance. Most authorities recognize this humble action as deliberate act of humility, a mark of respect or deliberate self-humiliation. Ceremonial feet washing often involved marking the toe with blood or oil to symbolize either consecration or the cleansing of the entire person. This type of ritual was considered important before entering God’s house. Bathing feet in oil was also taken as a prospect of wealth. When Mary Magdalene washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and dried them with her hair, she also anointed them with expensive ointment. For this token of devotion, Christ forgave her sins then proceeded to remind his host that he had not been extended the same courtesy as would be appropriate to a welcome guest. Jesus then subverted the symbolism by washing the feet of his disciple’s feet at the Last Supper. Despite protestation he reminded his devotees the significance of foot washing, which is celebrated to this day. ‘I have done this to give you an example of something that you should do.’ Christ’s action demonstrated that service rather than status represented greatness in the Kingdom of Heaven. This action prepared his disciples (and their converts) to walk in the path of righteousness. Christians adopted the Hebrew foot washing ceremony and in some religious faiths this is still considered as one of the three ordinances (sacrament) i.e. baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and foot washing.
Foot washing acts as a renewal of baptism and commitment to living God’s way of life. Foot washing is still practised in one form or other throughout the world on the Thursday before Good Friday. Popes, religious leaders, and monarchs have all honoured the commitment to faith and humanity. In the UK the ceremony was often accompanied with the distribution of alms in the form of food and drink, clothes and money. Until 1689, in the reign of William & Mary, the monarchs personally washed the feet of the selected poor. Foot cleaning was replaced by specially minted coins, called Monday Money. To this day the custom is still celebrated on the day before Good Friday, when Her majesty the Queen distributes specially minted money to the poor. A man and woman are chosen to represent each year of the monarch’s life and given the special coins in a church. The specially minted coinage is worth much more than its face value.
Proskunew describes a Persian custom, which involved kneeling and putting the face to the ground. This sometimes involved kissing the ground. Taken as the act of submission, respect, gratitude, supplication, neediness, and humility. This was used on all sorts of occasions. Thought to have originated as a non-verbal greeting where men of equal rank would kiss each other on the lips. An inferior kissed his superior on the cheeks, and where one was much less noble rank than the other, he fell to the ground in homage. Considered to have become ritualized at the oriental courts, depending on rank, visitors would prostrate themselves, kneel in front of, bow for, or blow a kiss to the king. There may have been practical reasons for blowing a kiss as halitosis was thought to be common. Magicians would use the same technique in order to prevent contamination of the sacred fire. Alexander the Great (327) spread his empire to incorporate others and naturally took Iranians to serve at his court. To win his or her respect and support he had to act like a Persian king, and ordered everybody to behave according to the oriental court ritual. The court custom, caused consternation amongst the Greeks as prostration, bowing or kneeling, to anyone other than the Gods was unacceptable. Despite violent opposition it is not clear whether Alexander the Great’s attempt at cultural infliction, succeeded.
However, proskynesis was commonly practiced at the courts of his successors and remnants remain today occidentals, still bow for kings and queens. By the time of the Old Testament the custom had passed in judicial behavior and when an accused was brought before the judge, he lay prostate. If found guilty, the judge would place his foot on their neck. If innocent the judge would stoop over and lift their face with his hand. Lifting the face was a Hebrew concept, which equaled a declaration of innocence in a judicial, proceeding. When Muslims bow towards Mecca this is another reference to proskynesis and by contrast the posture of early Christian worship. was standing.
According to Brasch (1989), kissing the feet was a gesture of homage and deference, far removed from its erotic roots. Millions of pilgrims with loving pressure have worn down the feet of the statue of Saint Paul in Rome with their lips. At the beginning of the Holy Roman Empire it was the custom for the faithful to kiss the right hand of the Papal Father. In the eighth century, a rather passionate woman took liberties and according to legend, the Pope cut off his hand in disgust. The custom of kissing the Pope’s right foot was adapted as more appropriate. Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) had kings and churchmen kiss his feet. Today the act of homage involves kissing the Pontiff’s right shoe. Lips are aimed at the cross-depicted on the shoe. This is either taken as a tribute to his authority or the simulation of servitude.
FOOT WASHING CEREMONY IN THE ORTHODOX CHURCH
The Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches practice the ritual of the Washing of Feet on Holy and Great Thursday (Maundy Thursday) according to their ancient rites. The service may be performed either by a bishop, washing the feet of twelve priests; or by an Hegumen (Abbot) washing the feet of twelve members of the brotherhood of his monastery. The ceremony takes place at the end of the Divine Liturgy.
After Holy Communion, and before the dismissal, the brethren all go in procession to the place where the Washing of Feet is to take place (it may be in the center of the nave, in the narthex, or a location outside). After a psalm and some troparia (hymns) an ektenia (litany) is recited, and the bishop or abbot reads a prayer. Then the deacon reads the account in the Gospel of John, while the clergy perform the roles of Christ and his apostles as each action is chanted by the deacon. The deacon stops when the dialogue between Jesus and Peter begins. The senior-ranking clergyman among those whose feet are being washed speaks the words of Peter, and the bishop or abbot speaks the words of Jesus. Then the bishop or abbot himself concludes the reading of the Gospel, after which he says another prayer and sprinkles all of those present with the water that was used for the foot washing. The procession then returns to the church and the final dismissal is given as normal.
GENDERED AND SEXY FEET IN THE SCRIPTURES
In the scriptures scholars accept feet were used as metaphors for the genitalia. Keen to downplay emphasis on the generative process which was more pagan, the ancient Hebrews took the foot and made it a gender icon.
‘And he said, Behold now, my lords, turn in. I pray you, into your servant’s house, and tarry all night, and wash your feet, and ye shall rise up early, and go on your ways. And they said, Nay; but we will abide in the street all night.’ (Gen 19:2)
In Isaiah (7:20) reference was made to the hair of the feet. Most authorities interpret this passage to mean pubic hair. By sexualizing the feet, there was need to cover them from uninvited gaze. In the vision of the Lord’s glory, Isaiah described the six wings of the seraphims.
‘and with twain he covered his feet.’ (Isaiah 6:2)
Centuries later, Christian art avoided showing feet of the Devine with only the more risque artists risking ex communication, by tempting viewers to glimpses of uncovered feet. Angels were painted with large wings, which covered their feet, hence, a representation of modesty. The term shoe, which had its derivation in Old English (Anglo Saxon), describes a cover but not as protection, instead it meant to partially conceal, in an alluring manner. In Biblical times feet were not sexually attractive but could become so, when embellished with sandals. The penis metaphor is most obvious in the Book of Ruth.
‘And it shall be, when he lieth down, that thou shalt mark the place where he shall lie, and thou shalt go in, and uncover his feet, and lay thee down ; and he will tell thee what thou shalt do.’ (Ruth 3:4)
THE MEANING OF FEET IN THE SCRIPTURES
Pilgrims carrying the good news of God’s Salvation had beautiful feet:
‘How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good, that publish salvation; that saith unto Zion, The God reigneth!’ Is 52:7
‘Behold upon the mountains the feet of him that bringeth good tidings that publisheth peace!’ Nahum 1:15
By the New Testament those spreading the Gospels wore sandals.
‘And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace;’ Ephesians 6:15
The ancient custom of falling voluntary at another’s feet was taken as a mark of reverence.
‘And I fell at his feet’ 1 Sam 25: 24
‘And Esther spake yet again before the king, and fell down at his feet..’ Esher 8:3.
Many who met Jesus were described to fall to their feet.
‘And, behold, there cometh one of the rulers of the synagogue, Jairus by name; and when he saw him, he fell at his feet.’ Mk 5:22
‘And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead.’ Rev 1:17
Taking hold of the feet of another was considered an act of prayer.
‘And when she came to the man of God to the hill, she caught him by the feet’ 2 Kings 4:27
‘And they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him.’ Mt 28:9
The action of touching a heel had profound meaning.
‘And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed ; it shall bruise thy head , and thou shalt bruise his heel.’ Genesis 4:15
Jacob meant ‘one who grabs the heel’ or ‘heel god’ in Hebrew.
‘He took his brother by the heel in the womb, and by his strength he had power with God:’ Hosea 12:3
‘And after that came his brother out, and his hand took hold on Esau’s heel: and his name was called Jacob’ Gen 25:26
Images of heels were linked to potential disaster and the vulnerability of humanity.
‘The gin shall take him by the heel, and the robber shall prevail against him.’ Job 18:9
By the time of the New Testament, sitting at someone’s feet was considered an act of submission and tachability.
‘They went out to see what was done; and came to Jesus, and found the man, out of whom the devils were departed, sitting at the feet of Jesus,’ Luke 8:35
‘And she had as sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet and heard his word.’ Luke 10: 39
Spreading the Word of God across the known world would entail travelling. There is direct reference to Jesus Christ in the New Testament saying to his disciples to wear sandals whilst spreading the gospel. Later in the scriptures he is attributed to a statement not to be overburdened with footwear. Most scholars accept the latter to mean to travel light. By implication however as shoes and sandals were the preferred costume of the privileged then perhaps the Disciples were being directed to become more accepted by the higher social strata yet by the same token, not to appear too well attired to offend the poor. If sandals were to play an important role in the beginnings of Christianity then sandal makers and in particular sandal repairers would have a contributory role. Many affluent converts were disinherited from their family’s wealth yet compelled to spread the WORD, they needed an income for support themself. Many became sandal makers who worked by night whilst doing God’s work during day.